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AFGHANISTAN: Daily stuff here please....

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« on: August 03, 2010, 06:06:19 am »

South Asia
Aug 4, 2010 
Battle for upper hand in Marjah continues

By IWPR-trained reporters

Residents of Marjah, the focus of a major operation by North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led coalition forces earlier this year to rid the Helmand district of Taliban forces, have spoken of growing insecurity and fear the insurgents could re-establish themselves there.

Some 15,000 foreign and Afghan forces took part in "Operation Moshtarak" ("together") in January, battling 2,000 Taliban fighters for control of the area, a major drug production hub in Helmand. Though sporadic clashes with Taliban fighters continue, international troops say Marjah is now stable and point to significant improvements in the local economy and development.

But locals told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting that they feel too frightened to go to work and are concerned that reconstruction projects are failing.

Mir Wali, a shopkeeper in the Loya Chareh bazaar, complained that he had never seen Marjah so insecure and he believes the Taliban will take over the area if things don't improve.

"I saw with my own eyes sometime back that the Taliban attacked the governor and Americans on this intersection," he said, referring to a triple suicide bombing in the center of Marjah last month which targeted a visit by Richard Holbrooke, the special United States envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Insurgents also shot at his flight as it prepared to land, although they failed to injure his party, which included Helmand governor Gulab Mangal, US ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of US forces and the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF.

Other businessmen say they are too frightened to open their shops.

"I have not gone to my shop for 10 days," said shopkeeper Haji Abdul Samad. "There, bullets drop like rain from the sky. The cattle and sheep die like flies. I swear there is no humanitarianism or humanity."

Gul Ahmad, another Loya Chareh shopkeeper, said he had kept his premises shut for a long time due to Taliban threats.

"The Taliban number has increased and they have worsened the conditions for the people," he said. "They warn us to shut the shops. They are very cruel, and if I do not shut the shop, they will beat me to death."

However, a US army spokesman said that the vast majority of the shops in the town of Marjah were now open and functioning normally, a sign of what he described as improved security.

"Two weeks after we initially entered Marjah, there were few, if any, shops open in the bazaars," he said, adding that now more than 600 traders were active in the various markets around the town, accounting for over 80% of all businesses in the bazaars.

"The bazaars normally see several hundred locals shopping there daily, showing significant trust in the security situation within the bazaars," he said.

While there were still clashes with insurgents in Marjah, these were "not to the point where it [will] fall to the Taliban or that locals fear opening their shops - as seen in the numerous shops open daily".

The US army spokesman also emphasized that coalition forces had numerous projects underway within Marjah, including the construction of schools and roads.

"We also conduct daily Quick Impact Projects, where locals clean the bazaars, dredge canals, and numerous other small daily projects," he said.

Locals insist that development efforts have slowed down and that Taliban attacks have deterred people from taking part in reconstruction projects. Marjah resident Asadullah said he had been employed in a Cash for Work project but abandoned it due to the threat of violence.

"I worked in a project for one month," he said. "We were cleaning the streams and drains and they paid 250 afghanis [US$5] per day, but the number of Taliban fighters increased so much that every day they were conducting attacks. The attacks increased and I left the work.

"There are Taliban on every road and intersection, but few of them carry guns. Some are monitoring the situation, collecting intelligence and information about the movement of the American patrols. And some armed Taliban stay at home and prepare for attacks."

An employee of the development organization the International Relief and Development, IRD, said he had been working on the distribution of water pumps to 300 farmers in Marjah district for the past two months.

Declining to give his name, he said that it was proving difficult to give the equipment out. "The people are afraid," he said. "The Taliban burn the water pumps and if they find them, they kill the farmers."

IRD spokeswoman Melissa Price said irrigation pump distribution in the district, which began in May, had been "impeded by a persistent intimidation campaign from the Taliban and concerns from the district government that the distribution would not be adequately monitored due to security conditions".

However, the project had stepped up its efforts in July, and pumps would be now be distributed from three separate locations in the district "in an effort to alleviate farmers' security concerns during travel and pump transportation".

Helmand officials also accept that there are problems, but say the situation is not as grave as some Marjah residents claim.

"No doubt there are problems in Marjah, we face Taliban attacks, but people support us and there are improvements in Marjah," district chief Mohammad Zaher told IWPR in a telephone interview. "The situation is not so bad. [The negativity] is propaganda."

Dawood Ahmadi, spokesman for Governor Mangal, said the problems in Marjah were evident elsewhere in the region as the Taliban's Quetta shura, its Pakistan-based leadership council, had decided to focus its efforts on increasing insecurity in the whole of Helmand.

"This is not only the problem of Marjah," he said, but insisted that "soon everything will come under control".

After returning from a 10-day visit to Marjah where he consulted with local elders, Helmand deputy governor Sattar Marzakwal said he had decided to create a special police unit to combat Taliban intimidation of locals.

"The rapid response battalion consists of 200 national army, national police and American army officers," he said. "They will get to any location in a few minutes if people inform them of the presence of insurgents."

But Mohamad Aqa Takra, a former officer in the communist regime and now a military specialist, said this initiative would not bring security to Marjah.

"If the Quetta shura puts its main focus on Helmand, as officials claim, the Marjah district cannot be secured by 200 or 300 men - even 10,000 American and Afghan soldiers couldn't do it," he said.
Jabir, a police officer in Marjah, said that the district was extremely insecure, and feared the Taliban could soon be back in charge unless something was done.

"Everything has changed here," he said. "We are afraid of every farmer, and think that there might be a Taliban fighter behind every stone and every tree."

He said that the only way that Afghan police can patrol is with American soldiers. "The Taliban are very audacious and brave. They have very new machine guns and every day they conduct more than 10 attacks on us in Marjah. It is completely horrifying."

The Taliban claim that their success is due to the help and cooperation of local people.

Taliban spokesman Qari Usuf Ahmadi said the insurgents are very powerful in Marjah and will never concede defeat to the US and Afghan forces. "People help us, they give us food and support us and that is why our operations go so well," he said.

But Marjah district chief Zaher maintained that the area would never come under Taliban control again. "It is impossible to lose Marjah," he added. "Marjah will never fall."

(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.) 
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